The best-attended annual sporting event on the planet returns to our screens on Saturday as the 19th series of the Six Nations Championship kicks-off in Cardiff.
The attritional nature of modern-day rugby union has made this year’s renewal devilishly difficult call, with each country experiencing a plethora of big-name injuries. It’s been suggested an eye-boggling 58 players are unavailable or rated doubtful for the opening round of action.
Such strains are bound to stretch squad-depth and resources to the limit, whilst tournament scheduling and the unpredictable northern hemisphere weather are also bound to play a major part in deciding who lifts the Championship trophy on St Patrick’s Day.
Below I’ll analyse each nation’s strengths, weaknesses and share my own view on how successful (or not) 2018 might be before revealing my favourite pre-tournament plays.
Strap yourselves in, it promises to be another monumental edition of rugby’s oldest and most thrilling international competition.
England start as Six Nations favourites for the third successive season but interest and anticipation in Eddie Jones’ army has waned of late. The Red Rose have drifted into odds-against territory to claim an unprecedented third successive title after a series of injuries and underwhelming displays.
England have won 21 of their 22 matches under Jones’ watch, and they enjoy the same itinerary – culminating in Ireland at home – which yielded a Grand Slam two years ago. The jollies haven’t been beaten at Twickenham in Six Nations action since 2012, where they’ll welcome Wales and the Irish.
But with the Red Rose failing to clinch a Six Nations title in the year after a British & Irish Lions tour since 1980 and with 13 players unavailable for the opening fortnight, conditioning and game-time exposure may have caught up with Jones’ squad.
The unavailability of Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes, and James Haskell will mean a rejig of the back row, whilst Maro Itoje, Chris Robshaw, and Courtney Lawes have all been struggling for full fitness in the past week or two. Elsewhere, there’s a frightening lack of cover for Mako Vunipola in the front row.
Surprisingly, only three of the past 10 titles were won by the highest-ranked nation so there’s every reason England could be toppled in this ultra-competitive campaign.
Anyhow, have the Red Rose reached a plateau in their performances?
England’s displays in 2017 arguably receded as the tournament progressed, scraping past Wales and France, as well as being dumbfounded by Italy. They hardly set the world alight in November but whilst they’re eminently beatable, you can be sure they’ll offer a stern defense of their crown and remain deserved favourites.
It might well be an antiquated cliché but it’s a serious case of ‘expect the unexpected’ from France this year.
Les Blues axed veteran head coach Guy Noves following a miserable spell in charge (seven wins from 21), culminating in an embarrassing and lucky home draw against Japan in the autumn. His December dismissal was notable as the first French boss to be fired before the end of his contract.
Another old-timer, Jacques Brunel, has been given the gig to turn Les Blues’ ailing fortunes around. He spent five years in charge of Italy but arrives following a less than impressive spell with Bordeaux and was greeted by groans of discontent from the ever-impatient French following.
The plan was to bring in assistant coaches like Fabien Galthie at Toulon, Franck Azema at Clermont and Patrice Collazo at La Rochelle for the Six Nations but none were released by their clubs. So Brunel has called for a hugely inexperienced coaching set-up involving Julien Bonnaire to oversee the line-out, Sebastian Bruno the scrum and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde the backs.
Brunel’s radically overhauled the playing squad too, gambling on youth. Only 16 of last season’s 32-man squad remain with 17 players under the age of 25 – Les Blues’ pack averages just 12 caps per-player and the two outhalves in the group – although hugely promising – are just 19 and 21 years-old.
Louis Picamoles’ absence, Mathieu Bastareaud’s suspension, plus injuries to Morgan Parra, Wesley Fofana, Brice Dulin and Camille Lopez to name just a few, threaten to derail Les Blues’ ambitions. Traditionally France fair well in post-Lions years but there’s not enough evidence to suggest this team will follow suit.
Since 2011, the Gallic nation have been impotent in attack, averaging just eight tries per-tournament. And although France’s third-place finish last season was their first in the top half of the table since 2011, it extended a seven-year wait for a Grand Slam– their most barren run since their first title in 1959.
Ireland were available around the 4.00 mark in November to clinch Six Nations glory but such quotes are long gone as momentum builds around the Green Machine’s prospects of a fourth Championship title in 10 years.
The Shamrocks boast a wonderful 70% win rate under the tactically-astute Joe Schmidt and head into the competition with their majority of their front-line stars rested. Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Garry Ringrose and Jarred Payne are Ireland’s only major absentees with O’Brien’s unavailability the most keenly felt.
Continuity and pragmatism have been a big part of Ireland’s success under Schmidt but the Kiwi coach was quick to highlight the current crop are the youngest of his five Six Nations campaigns to date. Nevertheless, experience and leadership forms the backbone of another formidable roster.
Schmidt’s low-risk rugby is suffocating at it’s best. Minimal penalties are conceded, limiting opposition kicks at goal, and the Munster backbone of Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Connor Murray are a match for most.
But for Ireland to properly function they’ll need a fully fit Murray and Jonny Sexton pulling the strings to lead and dictate their tried-and-trusted game plan.
The provinces have excelled in European competition – beating English clubs 7-1 in head-to-head duels – and a run of three games in Dublin during the middle of the tournament against Italy, Scotland and Wales has to be seen as an advantage for Shamrock backers.
However, an alarming slide in away results has cost Ireland the title in recent seasons and they must arrest such a slide to have any hope of realising title or Grand Slam dreams. Rome is the only venue outside of Dublin that Ireland have tasted Six Nations success in since 2015, with an appalling start in Scotland last season still fresh in the memory.
2017 results would imply Italy endured another wretched year – 10 defeats in 11 outings certainly suggests the Azzurri’s mantle as traditional Six Nations whipping boys won’t be departing any time soon.
But there is optimism creeping into the Italian game today, built by head coach Conor O’Shea.
Despite picking up the Wooden Spoon for the 12th occasion in 18 entries and claiming only four triumphs in 17 matches under the Irishman – against USA, Canada, Fiji and South Africa – there are signs of improvement.
All Blacks legend Wayne Smith has taken on a consultancy role to improve Azzurri coaching whilst the arrivals of Kieran Crowley and Michael Bradley to lead PRO14 outfits Zebre and Benetton Treviso has galvanised the club game; the pair have accrued nine victories in 26 league matches this term.
What’s more, Benetton gave the Scarlets, Toulon and Bath plenty of problems to ponder in their European campaign and although an improvement on last year’s five Six Nations defeats from five looks unlikely, O’Shea believes baby steps are being made in the right direction
Italy’s opportunity to upset the big guns has been hampered by a rough schedule; the Azzurri are the only nation to undergo two six-day turnarounds and three away games on the spin in the middle of the competition, and like the majority of their rivals, injuries have begun to bite.
Leonardo Sarto, Michele Campagnaro and Angelo Esposito are just three key players that would be capable of mixing it with Europe’s finest that will be missing. Meanwhile, legendary number eight Sergio Parisse is approaching the end of his international career and the Azzurri’s traditional front-five strength is also on the wane.
O’Shea is adamant the structure, fitness and mental strength of the group has improved ten-fold and it’s true too that Italy have a frightening array of quality back-row options but avoiding the dreaded Wooden Spoon (and with it, calls for relegation) look a tall order this time around.
The Scottish conundrum is particularly difficult to second-guess. For years, the Bravehearts were crippled by their clinical inefficiencies with ball in-hand, often playing the role of wounded losers in gallant, emotional defeats.
Scotland will be chalked up as underdogs for three of their opening four encounters in 2017 but there’s a feel-good factor back at Murrayfield with a surge of optimism flowing through the game once more. Not since their last title in 1999 has Scottish rugby been in such rude health.
Vern Cotter, and subsequently Gregor Townsend – have breathed new life into the group with a jet-heeled, open and attractive attacking game-plan offering thrilling results. The Bravehearts were a Beauden Barrett covering tackle away from turning the All Blacks over in November and twice toppled the Wallabies in 2017.
Scotland scored 16 tries in the autumn and crossed the whitewash at least four times in five of their past seven outings. With Ali Price and Finn Russell orchestrating proceedings behind a formidable back row, Townsend’s troops have the ability to cut loose against all incumbents. They’ll relish the prospect.
So what’s the catch? Well, Scotland will be without up to eight front row players for their opening two tussles through injury and suspension. At tight head, the Bravehearts are missing Zander Fagerson, WP Nel and Simon Berghan whilst on the loose head side Allan Dell, Daryl Marfo and Alisdair Dickinson are absent.
Hookers Frazer Brown and Ross Ford are also sidelined meaning Townsend will be fielding a third or fourth-choice front row for games against solid scrummagers Wales and France. Considering Scotland have struggled against power-orientated nations recently, plus Glasgow’s pack underperforming in Europe, hopes of an overdue title triumph begin to dissipate.
And that’s without mentioning their Michael Myers style road record; the Bravehearts have been beaten in all 15 of their away Six Nations matches since 2010 at venues other than Rome, as well as their notoriously slow starts – winning their Six Nations opener twice in 18 years.
Of all Six Nations sides suffering with player unavailability, Wales are undoubtedly the hardest hit. Nine first-choice stars will be missing for their opening clash against Scotland, including seven British & Irish Lions.
With the Dragons finishing fifth in 2017 – and without a Six Nations title since 2013 – we could be forgiven for writing the Welsh off immediately. After all, Warren Gatland’s charges are aiming to regulate their results during a period of transition as they adopt a new attacking identity.
Wales dropped the ‘Warrenball’ concept in the autumn and instead insisted on playing a more expansive game. With the Scarlets excelling on the European stage following a similar blueprint, and the Ospreys singing of the same hymn sheet, the club game is in rude health.
Recent results (W6-D0-L5) include only two victories against countries above them in the World Rankings but there’s a bullishness to this group. Gatland claimed he’s delighted with the schedule – it’s the same sequence of fixtures as when Wales won Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012 – and there are many starlets waiting to be unleashed on the international stage.
Obviously, losing the likes of Sam Warburton, Dan Biggar, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams, Rhys Webb and Toby Falateu are bound to hurt but Gareth Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Rhys Patchell, Steffan Evans, Aaron Shingler and Josh Adams all boast the potential to make a major mark on this Championship.
The Dragons might be a little light in the front and second row but the Ospreys pack drilled the Saracens scrum and Scarlets’ front row have been on fire. Should Wales take supremacy up front against Scotland in the curtain-raiser, they’ll be confident of competing towards the upper echelons of the competition.
The Six Nations’ short, unforgiving format means any wrong move is invariably punished with Grand Slam dreams crushed and title hopes in smithereens. And what’s become incredibly crucial in recent seasons is away form.
Exclude Italy and last season’s Championship featured a sole success on the road – England’s fortunate triumph in Cardiff. That win essentially sealed the title for Eddie Jones’ troops with Ireland, France, Scotland, and Wales all faltering in games as guests.
Analysing the schedule, England’s rota appears the most enviable – travelling to the two biggest-priced nations – although Ireland will also fancy their chances should they overcome France in Paris on the opening weekend, setting up a proposed shoot-out between the two at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day.
The champions conceded the fewest number of tries in five of the past six campaigns which is possibly a tip of the cap in the direction of Ireland and Joe Schmidt’s side should be slightly favoured due their more attractive outright price. However, the best angle of attack is surely to back No Grand Slam at generous [2.01] odds.
Given the competitiveness of the teams, fixtures and the injuries, it’s very difficult to foresee any nation crossing the finishing line with an unblemished record. This selection has proven profitable in five of the past seven renewals.
Top Try Scorer
Last season’s Top Tryscorer market concluded messily. Eight players shared the top gong with a tally of three tries enough to earn the title; Irish reserve back Craig Gilroy even grabbed a piece of the pie thanks to a 33-minute hat-trick as a replacement against Italy, his only appearance of the tournament.
Punters will be hoping for a return to the norm with four of the previous five Six Nations editions producing a standalone winner.
As always, outside backs are the most appealing prospects. Indeed, the past 18 winners of the award featured players from the back three positions with half arriving from the winning nation, putting England and Ireland at the front of the queue once more.
England’s Jonny May [10.5] and Anthony Watson [13.5] dominate the top of the betting but a more appealing Red Rose punt could be Jonathan Joseph [15.5]. The Bath centre’s 17 tries include a haul of 10 across his last three Six Nations campaigns earning at least place money on all three occasions.
Keith Earls is an interesting runner at [13.0]. The Munster flyer broke an Irish tryscoring record during the international season of 2017 and has already claimed top honours in this category twice in his career. The now 30 year-old averages a try every 2.38 games for Ireland.
Team-mate for club and country, CJ Stander [28.00], should also be considered. Despite operating in the pack, the confrontational number eight carried 103 times during last season’s Championship – 30 times more than his fellow counterparts. The former Bulls youngster boasts seven tries in 18 Irish appearances.
Elsewhere, Stuart Hogg [18.00] offers more outside value after approaching peak form when terrorising Exeter on the European stage for Glasgow recently. The full-back’s blistering pace and footwork is a huge threat to opponents and the Scottish flyer finished joint top scorer 12 months ago whilst also being voted Player of the Tournament for the last two seasons.
Top Points Scorer
It’s far from ground-breaking to learn that the past 18 winners of the Top Points Scorer market where goal-kickers with 10 arriving from the Championship winning team.
French fly-half Camille Lopez bucked that trend last season, squeezing out Owen Farrell but the Englishman should regain his 2016 crown this time around and is the fair [2.40] market-leader.
Jonny Sexton [3.20] fits the billing but fitness concerns, coupled with the fact Farrell is rarely hooked – the Saracens star played every minute of England’s 2017 competition – puts the centre in pole position.
Mark’s Recommended Bets:
- No Grand Slam Winner [2.01]
- Ireland to win outright [2.85]
- Jonathan Joseph to be top try scorer [15.50]
- Keith Earls to be top try scorer [13.00]
- CJ Stander to be top try scorer [28.00]
- Stuart Hogg to be top try scorer [18.00]
- Owen Farrell to be top points scorer [2.40]